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Native Pathways to Education
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Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. II

"My Goodness, People Come and Go So Quickly Around Here"


by Lance C. Blackwood
Lake and Peninsula School District


Maybe the Land of Oz isn't the only place where Dorothy's statement would apply. The attrition rate of teachers in rural Alaska (although down noticeably over the past decade) is still a serious concern forrural school districts, village schools, and ultimately the parents and students who place their trust in them. 

After twelve years of living and teaching within the boundaries of Lake and Peninsula School District (located around Iliamna Lake and south along the Alaska Peninsula, in the Bristol Bay Region), I sat down one day to try to list all the teachers and administrators who have come and gone through our system. I say "try," because after compiling a list of names and/or faces of the individuals I could remember, I heard a colleague make a comment about another person who had taught with us, whom I'd completely forgotten. So after approximately 135 or so names or faces, I abandoned the effort. There were simply too many, too many years removed, or they were with the district for too short a time to be recalled. Needless to say, the number of "visiting" educators was quite long.

Trying to identify the reasons why so many individuals have come and gone is also difficult, since only they know the real reasons. However, some of those reasons include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. They were on a year's leave of absence from their former district.
  2. They accepted the position to gain valuable teaching experience to get into a larger school system.
  3. They were unhappy with their former school district and opted for another.
  4. They wanted to teach their way around the State of Alaska.
  5. They wanted to teach just long enough to build up a cash reserve.
  6. They went back to college for advanced training.
  7. They could not work with the central office administration, site principal, or administrative director who oversaw their program.
  8. They could not accept living conditions within the village.
  9. They could not accept teaching conditions within the village school.
  10. They became involved in a "village squabble" and felt they could no longer teach in that village or district.
  11. They had personal problems, either within the village or in their personal lives, which forced them to resign.
  12. They had a time line for staying in any one village school or district.
  13. They wanted to teach only eight years to become vested in the Alaska Teacher's Retirement System.
  14. There were no employment opportunities for their nonteaching spouse.
  15. They were unable to purchase land or a home for permanent roots in the village.
  16. There was a lack of social activities and other amenities within the village.
  17. They were not suited for teaching in rural Alaska. 

Other rural teachers could offer additional valid reasons why educators have come and gone through our rural districts around the state. But I strongly feel the prime reason is lack of preparation for positions for which new teachers are hired. In other words, they may have felt "isolated," placed into a different teaching situation with no, or inadequate, orientation to living and teaching in rural Alaska.

In many instances, newly hired educators are contracted at ajob fair or other place of recruiting, never having set foot within the territory of the school district, let alone the village school they were hired for, until they report for work. Granted, most school districts take their staff through a three or four day inservice, but little is presented at these meetings regarding the specific site and the environment of the village and school where they will be living and teaching for the next 9 months. With little preparation and great expectations, newly hired educators are placed in our rural Alaskan schools.

Rural Alaska Mentor Teaching Project

A new program, begun in 1988 by the Staff Development Network of the Alaska Department of Education, entitled The Rural Alaska Mentor Teaching Project, may have taken a giant step towards alleviating much of the frustrations, fears, and concerns first year teachers have regarding living and teaching in the rural isolated communities. It is an attempt to help make the transition for first time educators to rural Alaska smooth, more successful and enjoyable; hopefully, this transition will result in educators providing more effective teaching and ultimately more effective learning for students in village schools. It is also intended to promote and encourage educators to remain an active force in rural education for years to come.

The Team Approach

Ideally, the Project is designed to send a team of three school district members -a site administrator, an experienced rural teacher, and a newly hired teacher -to an intensive week-long training session with other team members from around the state. At the training session, a variety of activities, experiences, and concerns are addressed. Team leaders and expert trainers are brought in to run and instruct the sessions.

Initial tentative plans are made during the session as to how each team will proceed with the mentoring" process back at their sites. Ideally, the administrator, the mentor, and the protégé are assigned to the same village school, whereby daily contact, conferences and assistance can be provided to the protégé to make his/her teaching assignment as successful and stress-free as possible. The mentor is to be given release time to work directly with the protégé on those concerns identified during the training session, or as concerns come up during the school year. Hopefully, as the school year progresses, the principal, the mentor, and the protégé will meet less formally as only minimal contact is deemed necessary and as the protégé develops confidence and competence needed to teach effectively.

Drawbacks of the Mentor Project

The only significant problem with the mentor project is the vast diversity within each of the rural school districts. With this diversity come the following problems:

  1. In some instances a three member team is not possible because of a limited number of staff.
  2. The mentor may not get a sufficient amount of release time to spend with the protégé due to an insufficient number of certified staff members on site.
  3. The team members may not be able to meet regularly due to lack of release time.
  4. The mentor and protégé may not be assigned to the same village school.
  5. If the mentor and protégé are in different village schools, lack of additional release time may prevent meeting on a regular basis.
  6. If the mentor and protégé are in different village schools, weather conditions can inhibit the number of visitations by the mentor.

Benefits of the Mentor Project

In order for the mentor project to continue effectively helping new teachers adapt to teaching in rural schools, there are certain conditions that must exist:

  1. There must be continued commitment to the project from the Alaska Department of Education.
  2. There must be support and "buying into" the project from the local school district.
  3. There must be sufficient financial support from the school district.
  4. There must be trust established between the mentor and the protégé.

Obviously, if a protégé is not willing to cooperate with the mentor project, it will not have a chance of succeeding. But these are some of the benefits that can be expected from an effective Rural Mentor Teaching Project:

  1. The establishment of collegiality among the teaching and administrative staff.
  2. The protégé feeling he is not completely alone in the teaching assignment.
  3. The protégé having a person to rely on for direct assistance in all phases of classroom teaching and for adapting to rural village lifestyles.
  4. A non-threatening relationship of assistance in the school context, as the mentor does not have formal evaluative authority. 
  5. The mentor working with the protégé's own style and comfort level of teaching, not attempting to mold the protégé to the mentor's image of what an effective rural teacher should be.
  6. The establishment of lasting friendships and mutual respect between mentor and protégé.
  7. Finally, the "mentoring" experience making the difference between excellent beginning teachers packing their bags at the end of the school year and trying their luck somewhere else or returning to the district for many more productive years.

The Choice Is Ours...


Ray Barnhardt

Part I * Rural School Ideals

"My Goodness, People Come and Go So Quickly Around Here"
Lance C. Blackwood

Parental Involvement in a Cross-Cultural Environment
Monte Boston

Teachers and Administrators for Rural Alaska
Claudia Caffee

The Mentor Teacher Program
Judy Charles

Building Networks
Helen Eckelman

Ideal Curriculum and Teaching Approaches for a School in Rural Alaska
Teresa McConnell

Some Observations Concerning Excellent Rural Alaskan Schools
Bob Moore

The Ideal Rural Alaska Village School
Samuel Moses

From Then To Now: The Value of Experiential Learning
Clara Carol Potterville

The Ideal School
Jane Seaton

Toward an Integrated, Nonlinear, Community-Oriented Curriculum Unit
Mary Short

A Letter from Idealogak, Alaska
Timothy Stathis

Preparing Rural Students for the Future
Michael Stockburger

The Ideal Rural School
Dawn Weyiouanna

Alternative Approaches to the High School Curriculum
Mark J. Zintek

Part II * Rural Curriculum Ideas

"Masking" the Curriculum
Irene Bowie

On Punks and Culture
Louise J. Britton

Literature to Meet the Needs of Rural Students
Debra Buchanan

Reaching the Gifted Student Via the Regular Classroom
Patricia S. Caldwell

Early Childhood Special Education in Rural Alaska
Colleen Chinn

Technically Speaking
Wayne Day

Process Learning Through the School Newspaper 
Marilyn Harmon

Glacier Bay History: A Unit in Cultural Education
David Jaynes

Principals of Technology
Brian Marsh

Here's Looking at You and Whole Language
Susan Nugent

Inside, Outside and all-Around: Learning to Read and Write
Mary L. Olsen

Science Across the Curriculum
Alice Porter

Here's Looking at You 2000 Workshop
Cheryl Severns

School-Based Enterprises
Gerald Sheehan

King Island Christmas: A Language Arts Unit
Christine Pearsall Villano

Using Student-Produced Dialogues
Michael A. Wilson

We-Search and Curriculum Integration in the Community
Sally Young

Artist's Credits



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Alaska Native Knowledge Network
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Last modified August 14, 2006